Comic book nostalgia and contemporary hook-ups drive the two highest profile movies this week. There’s also some hard watching from China and South Africa, if you can take it, and two controversial mavericks to meet.
Here’s the list:
Captain America: 3 stars
Friends With Benefits: 3 1/2
Eco Pirate (Paul Watson): 3 1/2
Bobby Fischer Against the World: 4
City of Life and Death: 4 1/2
Life, Above All: 4
Life In A Day: 3
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: Ready for yet another comic book movie? This is the fourth one in just three months and the good news is: it’s fun. Not pompous or dopey as these films get. This one comes on with a light bounce and a perfectly-realized 1940’s retro look.
Director Joe Johnston, who long ago shrunk the kids, honey, and successfully dipped into the past in the underrated The Rocketeer, keeps things moving at a breezy clip in this World War II fantasy. There’s lots of action, in both mammoth and small sequences, but also solid acting by a pack of reliables: Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving (both putting on respectable German accents), Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell, among them. That helps cover over the rather bland work by Chris Evans as the scrawny kid who’s pumped up with an experimental growth hormone into a solid fighting man but a dramatic dud. He’s stuck, for a while, in a bond-selling stage show which is colorful but not quite as funny as intended. Weaving is the standout here as the rogue Nazi known as Red Skull. He even has his own salute: “Heil Hydra.” How rogue is that? There are echoes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and more U.S. military jingoism than is fashionable these days but good use of 3-D. (Scotiabank and many suburban theatres) 3 out of 5
FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS: Justin Timberlake thinks this is the milestone romantic comedy for today’s generation. In the same class as Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally in years past. I don’t see that it’ll have that kind of staying power but it is enjoyable while it lasts, totally up to date, candid about sex and packed with snappy dialogue, often on the raunchy side. Best of all, Justin and Mila Kunis make an extremely likeable couple, in or out of bed.
In bed, they’re also the most chatty couple you can imagine as they give detailed instructions to each other about what they like done and how they like it. Their first sex scene is very funny. Visually modest, though. She describes him as “emotionally unavailable” and herself as emotionally damaged”. So why complicate things with love; just go for the sex. But, in a reverse of the question Harry and Sally grappled with, they explore whether they can keep love out of it. Or more correctly, as you can probably imagine, how long. There’s some very smart writing on the way to the answer, plus funny supporting roles by Woody Harrelson as a gay colleague at work and Patricia Clarkson as a mother who’s still a hippie free spirit. The mood is almost blown when a father with Alzheimer’s (Richard Jenkins) is brought in. Part of his story was necessary to advance the plot, but not the dementia. It feels like an ill-advised attempt to show how contemporary the film is. The chemistry between Justin and Mila already does that. (International Village and several suburban theatres). 3 ½ out of 5
ECO PIRATE: THE STORY OF PAUL WATSON: By my count, that's now three full-length documentaries in four years about the maverick environmentalist. He’s also got a TV series called Whale Wars and more than a bit of a reputation as a publicity hound. He’s into what people sometimes call, monkeywrenching. He doesn’t just march and put up banners, he gets in there and blocks. That includes ramming whaling ships, tangling up propellers, throwing stink bombs and yes getting on the phone to news media and sending out video clips.
This film celebrates all that by showing him at work during yet another campaign against Japanese whalers in the Antarctic (a mainstay of all three films), other actions including the sinking of a notorious whaling ship called The Sierra (“a satisfying experience”) and explaining himself in interview clips. “Human beings are not moral,” he says. You have to hit them economically, not with morality. Vancouver filmmaker Trish Dolman marshals a line of admirers and critics to tell his whole story, his firebrand origins in Greenpeace when it was first organized here in Vancouver, his ejection from its board after the anti-sealing campaign he organized was dubbed “a fiasco,” and the subsequent campaigns that got him labeled “the Rambo of the environmental movement.” There are only brief flashes into his personal life. He once beat up his own father, he says. His daughter says he was rarely around. His third wife, who speaks a lot during the film, suddenly goes away and Paul explains that he won’t left women change him. I don’t know how much better I know him from watching this film, but it’s a good start. The director will answer quest as the Friday evening and the 4: 35 Saturday screenings. (5th Avenue Cinemas) 3 ½ out of 5
BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD: One of the strangest sideshows in the U.S./Russia cold war was a chess tournament held in Iceland in the summer of 1972. Fischer took the world championship away from Russia’s Boris Spassky but he mustered up a circus to do it. He played some games in Vancouver to qualify and then refused to go. Henry Kissinger phoned him with a personal appeal. When he arrived (late, of course), Fischer complained about the hall, some noise, the money and more. It took 21 games to decide the winner.
All this was followed breathlessly by the newspapers and even ABC TV as a sports special—and now by this lively film. Director Liz Garbus has brought in recollections from almost everyone involved, even Fischer’s bodyguard, and has turned up some choice archival film. There’s Fischer, age 15, on the TV show I’ve Got a Secret being questioned by Dick Clark. There he is at age 29 ranting that Russians cheat. Others talk of his colossal egotism and his later paranoia, apparently a hazard of high-level chess. He never defended his title but became a recluse, an anti-semite and, after a sad re-match with Spassky, a criminal wanted by the U.S. government. It’s a compelling story that ends, ironically, right back in Iceland. (VanCity Theatre) 4 out of 5
CITY OF LIFE AND DEATH: This film is often hard to watch but if you stick with it you’ll be rewarded with a dramatic and heart-wrenching history lesson. The city is Nanking, China’s southern capital in 1937, invaded by the Japanese army and the site of some horrific atrocities, that Japan to this day downplays and this Chinese film (based on a celebrated book) re-creates. From what director Chuan Lu dramatizes so well in glistening widescreen, black and white, the expression “the rape of Nanking” is fully justified. There are street battles, hangings, firing squads and mass executions. An entire field of prisoners is literally moved down by machine-gun fire in one scene. People are buried alive in another.
The horror accumulates relentlessly and just as you start getting numb to it, rape brings a second and more harrowing terror into the film. The Japanese commander orders “comfort women” rounded up to service his soldiers, who he says are getting “unruly”. These scenes aren’t graphic but stir up a chilling outrage as we watch. What makes the film work, though, are the many small breaks from the violence to show how people deal with it—on both sides. A Chinese soldier tries to stay out of sight. A stocky man and a young boy repeatedly cross paths. A Chinese family feels safe inside a German compound (also depicted in the film John Rabe that played VIFF last year) until the demand comes to borrow 100 women. On the other side, the Japanese are also shown as human beings. A sergeant is coldly efficient, maybe even bloodthirsty, but a young soldier is visibly turning against the horror. It’s this nod to real people inside the general rage, along with the exceptional visual construction, that makes this a great film. (VanCity Theatre) 4 1/2 out of 5
LIFE, ABOVE ALL: This is a very moving film about the stigma of AIDS in South Africa, featuring a stunning natural performance by a first-time actress named Khomotso Manyaka. Of even more interest to us, is that the script is by local writer Dennis Foon, who’s got a wide resume that includes TV, movies and, as one of the founders of Green Thumb, children’s theatre. The whole project is a hybrid, based on a book by Allan Stratton of Toronto and directed by South African-born, now living in Germany, Oliver Schmitz. It is not, under Telefilm rules, Canadian. The film was on a shortlist for a foreign language Oscar though. It’s entirely in a dialect called sepedi and therefore subtitled.
Manyaka plays 12-year-old Chanda who has to deal with superstition and gossip in her village, an overbearing neighbor and a drunken stepdad. In the opening scenes she has to pick out a coffin for her infant sister’s funeral. When her mother also gets “the flu”, it’s said she brought it on herself, by defying the family’s plan for an arranged marriage. When she goes away on a mysterious trip, Chanda is left behind to care for two siblings, argue with a friend who’s drifting into prostitution and grow up fast. The details of fear and ignorance are laid on rather obviously but they feel authentic and when she sets out to find her mother the film becomes a statement of spirit and toughness. There’s also humor which helps keep this hard film watchable. (International Village) 4 out of 5
LIFE IN A DAY: This film officially opens next Friday, but gets a preview Sunday because that’s a year to the day after everything you see in there happened. People were asked to film something in their life on July 24, 2010 and these 91 minutes are culled from over 4,500 hours that came in.
It’s a marvel of editing and quite entertaining, ranging from mundane to dramatic. It starts chronologically with a midnight moon, moves to elephants bathing, a child breastfeeding, a teenager hard to rouse from bed. As the day moves on, the film shifts now and then to themes like “What do you fear?” There’s no great revelation about the state of the world but we do get a lively hop through a lot of scenes from all over the world. A Peruvian shoe-shine boy goes home to work on his laptop. A young man phones his mom to reveal he’s gay. Another man shoplifts and jumps a turnstile into the subway. A giraffe leads a section on giving birth. People are crushed in a German street festival called Love Parade. There’s a brief scene of animal slaughter, two funny weddings (one with an Elvis theme in Las Vegas), African women singing as they work and a glimpse of Vancouver’s fireworks on English Bay. Kevin Macdonald (director of The Last King of Scotland ) put it together with the Scott Brothers, Ridley and Tony, overseeing. (International Village) 3 out of 5
NOTE: The photos were supplied by the movie studios and are therefore the exclusive property of their copyright owners.